Lowering Mortality: A Spatial History of Segregation, Environments, and Mortality Transitions in New Orleans, 1880–1915
Doctor of Philosophy
Between 1880 and 1915, three forces changed New Orleans. City engineers drained the interior of the city, opening new land for settlement. Public health officials gained powerful tools and knowledge to fight and prevent infectious diseases. And white residents developed and increasingly enforced social, economic, and residential segregation by race. The mortality differentials show that the color line segregated health improvements as well. In 1915, black infants died at a rate 102 percent higher than white infants, and black adults died at a rate 185 percent higher than white adults. The mortality rate for black adults, moreover, increased by 25 percent, while the rate for white adults decreased by 42 percent. This dissertation uses new methods in spatial history to investigate the causes of the black and white mortality differentials in New Orleans during the Gilded Age (1880-1915). This study asks two basic questions: How did the New Orleans mortality terrain differ spatially and temporally for the black and white residents of the city? And what caused the differences in mortality terrains between the black and white populations? To answer these questions, this dissertation developed a novel analytical framework based on elevation and individual-level geospatial datasets. This framework, coupled with the transdisciplinary methods of spatial analysis, reveals the spatiality of the mortality transitions and the effects of uneven transitions. This approach is only recently possible due to advances in computing technology, in particular the development of geographic information systems (GIS). The results of this analysis uncover the process of the mortality transitions by race, the evolution of the urban disease terrain, and the consequences of these patterns. This study finds divergences in white and black mortality rates over the course of the mortality transition. Black infants and adults died at increasingly disparate rates from white infants and adults. High population density and flooding hazards in lower elevations directly caused these disparities in the black mortality rates. White efforts at oppression and segregation pushed black residents into areas of higher disease burdens, both due to high population density and increased risks of flooding. As such, this dissertation argues that at the turn of the twentieth century, white residents not only implemented a racially-based system (Jim Crow) of social and economic oppression, but they created a deeply embedded system of oppression at the intersection of disease, environment, and landscape. This system of environmental oppression has sustained social and economic oppression along the color line in New Orleans, even as community, local, and national reformers have worked to dismantle the overt structures of Jim Crow.